Networked Learning Conference 2010 
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Networked learning, the Net Generation and Digital Natives

Symposium Organiser: Chris Jones
The Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, UK


This symposium brings together researchers who have been investigating young people who are often described as Net Generation or Digital Native learners. The argument for the Net Generation and Digital Native theses is that there is a clear generational break and that young people have:

.. not just changed incrementally from those of the past... A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. (Prensky 2001 p 1)

The research reported in this symposium has a critical stance in relation to the idea of a generational break between a new generation of young learners and older learners described as Digital Immigrants. The papers report from a variety of contexts with significant variations in both geographical and age range. The popularized argument is that there is a new generation emerging from those young people who have been ‘bathed in bits and bytes’ since birth (Palfrey & Gasser 2008, Tapscott 2009). The context of change is a powerful one as these young people have grown up in an environment infused with digital technologies and the Internet and Web have been in place all of their lives. The claim is that this material context has led to these young people developing a natural aptitude and high skill levels in relation to the new technologies. Those older people who grew up in an analogue world prior to the new technologies are portrayed as always being behind, as being immigrants to this new world and never likely to reach the levels of skill and fluency developed naturally by those who have grown up with new digital technologies.

The issue is important to networked learning because these claims include specific claims about approaches to learning in the new generation. The young learner is characterized as having known qualities that apply to an entire generation. The language used about them is quite definite and contains few qualifications. For example Tapscott says this in his most recent book:

In education they [the Net generation] are forcing a change in the model of pedagogy, from a teacher-focused approach based on instruction to a student-focused model based on collaboration.” (Tapscott 2009 p 11).

The language is firm and direct and the claim is that like it or not a new generation is forcing change and the character of that change is student –focused and based on collaboration. Tapscott is not alone and Palfrey and Gasser have a similar message using Prensky’s term Digital Natives:

In order for schools to adapt to the habits of Digital Natives and how they are processing information, educators need to accept that the mode of learning is changing rapidly in a digital age… Learning itself has undergone a transformation over the past 30 years… For Digital Natives, research is more likely to mean Google search than a trip to the library. They are more likely to check Wikipedia… Palfrey and Gasser 2008 p239)

Once again the language used is highly directive. Schools need to adapt. Educators need to accept and learning has undergone a transformation. In this rhetoric there is little room for doubt or critical thinking about the direction and necessity of change. These arguments are not new but they remain influential despite a growing body of critical commentary based on empirical work with young people (for example Kennedy, Judd, Churchward, Kay & Krause 2008, Jones, Ramanau, Cross and Healing 2009) and based arguments theoretically (e.g. Bayne & Ross 2007, Bennett, Maton & Kervin 2008). Policy makers continue to adopt this kind of argument. For example the then Vice Chancellor of the Open University (UK) speaking to the university council:

Most of our students, moreover, are part of what we now describe as the Net Generation. This is a generation who think IM, text and Google are verbs not applications. (Brenda Gourley VC Open University (UK), Council and Staff Address 26th September 2008)

At the time the Vice Chancellor was speaking the Open University (UK) was recruiting about 20% of first level students under the age of 25, so 80% of the recruitment were older than the usual definition of the Net Generation.

If further evidence is required about the persistence of these kinds of argument in the public domain a recent moral panic in the UK might provide it. Prensky has suggested that the brains of this new generation are different to previous generations (Prensky 2001a). A similar argument was advanced by Baroness Greenfield the Director of the Royal Institution in the United Kingdom and widely reported internationally. Baroness Greenfield told the House of Lords that children's experiences on social networking sites:

…are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity. (24th of February 2009 )

This argument suggests that exposure to new technologies and web services is likely to fundamentally change the brains of children and young adults. If this were true then being a digital native or a digital immigrant is a fixed product of early development and not something that can be addressed by education or training.

The material basis for the existence of a Net Generation certainly exists and in many ways this has been deepened over the past 10 years. The rise of broadband connectivity to the Internet has allowed a rapid growth of new Internet and Web based services whilst mobile technologies and the convergence of the Internet and mobile telecommunications has allowed for a new portability that has also been enabled by the development of a range of devices allowing for access to the Internet on the move (Castells et al 2007). However the papers that follow paint a much more complex picture of change amongst young people. The papers show that young people at school and university use technologies in ways that are related to their purposes and exhibit a diversity that contrasts with the idea of a sharp generational change. The papers agree that there are significant age related changes but they suggest that these changes are mediated by the active appropriation of technology by young people acting purposively in influential institutional contexts.

Introduction - .pdf


Diversity in interactive media use among Dutch youth

Antoine van den Beemt
Fontys University of Applied Sciences, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Sanne Akkerman, P. Robert-Jan Simons
IVLOS Institute of Education, Utrecht University, The Netherlands


The intensive use of interactive media has led to assertions about the effect of these media on youth. An increasing number of studies refute these assertions. Despite the enrichment of the debate with empirical data, current research tends to focus on computer and Internet use and skills. Elsewhere we argued that research shouldn't look at the use per se, but rather at the ways interactive media function in young people's activities from the perspective of a changing society. This perspective allows describing possible consequences of societal tendencies for young people's everyday life; it allows describing the social and cultural functions of interactive media as part of young people's behaviour and systems of values and beliefs. This paper presents a quantitative study on the social and cultural functions of interactive media in young people's lives. Rather than following the assumption of a homogeneous generation, we investigate the existence of a diversity of user patterns. Results from a pilot-study show that contemporary youth can be divided into categories of interactive media use and of interactive media users. These results call for a better understanding of these categories and the characteristics of their members. The research question for this paper by result can be formulated as: Can patterns be found in the use of interactive media among youth? We answer this question by a survey among Dutch youngsters aged 9-to-23. The respondents were all students in education levels ranging from primary education to higher professional education. Four clusters of interactive media users, namely Traditionalists, Gamers, Networkers and Producers were identified using cluster analysis. Four clusters of interactive media use, namely browsing, performing, interchanging and authoring were identified as well. Behind these straightforward clusters, a complex whole of user activities can be found. Each cluster shows specific use of and opinions about interactive media. This allows for studying the intricate relationship between youth culture, interactive media and learning. With our analysis of both a) use and b) opinions and preferences, our study provided a deeper understanding of the social and cultural functions of interactive media. Furthermore this study revealed the existence of a diversity of interactive media users, rather than one uniform group, as is often assumed in the literature.


Full Paper - .pdf


Learning and Living Technologies: A Longitudinal Study of First-Year Students’ Expectations and Experiences in the Use of ICT

Ruslan Ramanau,
The Open University Business School,
The Open University, UK

Anesa Hosein, Chris Jones,
The Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, UK


This paper presents results from a longitudinal study on first-year students’ expectations and actual reported use of information and communication technologies (ICT) at university. The study was interested in firstly, knowing if students from the Net Generation (≤ 25 years) would appropriate more ICT time for both social life and leisure, and study purposes than older students, as this forms the basis for many Net Generation and Digital Natives claims about young people use of technology. Secondly, the impact of university type (place-based or distance-learning) on ICT use was explored.

Data were analysed from two surveys that were part of the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project: The Net Generation Encountering eLearning at University. The first survey which asked for expected ICT time was sent at the beginning of the academic year. The second survey was sent towards the end of the academic year and asked for the actual time spent on using ICTs. Students studying 14 different courses in five different universities (four place-based and one distance-learning) in England took part in the study.

The results showed that students underestimated their total ICT time (combined time for social life and leisure, and study purposes) by at least 1 hour per day. The Net Generation students were found to spend more time per day using ICT for social life and leisure purposes than the non-Net Generation students (2.2 vs 1.7 hrs). In contrast, the non-Net Generation students spent more ICT time on study than the Net Generation students (2.3 vs 1.9 hrs. It appears that younger generation students used ICT for social life and leisure more frequently and older students were more likely to use it for study.

University mode of study also influenced how students appropriated their ICT time. Place-based university students spent at least one hour more per day on ICT than distance-learning university students. The results found differences across the two age groups were more noticeable at the place-based university than at the distance-learning university.


Full Paper - .pdf


Learning nests and local habitations: Locations for networked learning

Chris Jones and Graham Healing
The Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, UK


In this paper, we return to two descriptions of the ways that learning is located in technology enhanced environments. The idea of a local habitation arose in the context of an ecological view of the way people shaped new technologies for their own needs and it stood in opposition to the idea that new media and technologies led to inevitable consequences. The second term learning ‘nests’ arose out of research that focused on student study-bedrooms. Both terms were useful in humanising the relationships between new networked technologies and their users and locating the students and teachers who made use of them.

We revisit the idea of learning nests understood as a local habitation using data collected as part of an ESRC funded project examining The Net Generation encountering e-learning at university. The report is based on 19 first year undergraduate students who took part in a cultural probe exercise. During 24 hours they received SMS text messages and recorded answers to a fixed set of prompt questions either using a small hand held video camera or using a small notebook.

Our findings illustrate how students give meaning to the array of technologies and services they are presented with. They show that the technological landscape has changed markedly in the past 10 years but that student practices do not seem to have moved as quickly. Students still use the kinds of learning spaces they used 10 years ago despite the increased availability of network access to the Internet and the increased ownership and availability of mobile devices. An area where there has been significant change is in the social character of students’ engagements with networked technologies and the integration of the mobile phone, social networking and other social technologies into the everyday fabric of student life. However there is little evidence of significant change in student practices in terms of the adoption of mobile network access from this research and this should lead to caution in making predictions of change.


Full Paper - .pdf


Digital natives: Everyday life versus academic study

Linda Corrin, Sue Bennett, Lori Lockyer
Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong


Access to and use of technology by ‘digital native’ students studying in our universities has been an area of much speculation, though relatively little empirical research. This has led some pundits to call for a radical rethink of how higher education uses technology to deliver education. Others are more circumspect and think it is necessary to hear directly from these ‘digital natives’ about their actual technology practices before jumping to such conclusions. This paper reports on a study that aimed to do just that; the study comprised a survey of the technology access and practices in both everyday life and for academic study of first year university students. The findings suggest that, for the participants of this study, access and usage of technology does not neatly fit into the stereotype of the ‘digital native’. Access to and use of some technologies was found to be quite high whilst others have significant levels of non-adoption. A comparison was made between technologies and activities undertaken as part of students’ everyday life in contrast to their academic study and it was found that the usage rates were generally lower for academic study. Access to and use of different technologies for different purposes is variable and university teachers and policymakers need to take this variability into account when making changes at the course or institution levels. What is also required is more in-depth investigation of the technology practices of these ‘digital natives’ to understand how technology is transforming their social and academic lives and, importantly, how they are shaping technology to suit their lives.


Full Paper - .pdf


Supporting the “Digital Natives”: what is the role of schools?

Rebecca Eynon
Department of Education & Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford


The notion of the “digital native” has become pervasive in popular discourse about young people and new technologies. In this discourse, parents and teachers (“the digital immigrants”) have been characterised as unable to support young people in their uses of the Internet and other new technologies because (unlike the digital natives) the immigrants were not born into a world surrounded by new technologies. Yet in contrast, empirical research has shown that there is limited empirical basis for a distinction in the ways that people use new technologies because of when they were born and that young people are not all the same – they engage with new technologies in a variety of ways and vary considerably in their skills to use new technologies. Given this empirical evidence, it is important to better understand why and in what ways young people use computers and the Internet and if and how they need to be supported in this use. This paper aims to add to existing research by using empirical survey data on how and why young people in Britain use the Internet outside formal educational settings. The data is based on a nationally representative face to face survey of 1000 young people in Britain aged 8, 12, 14 and 17-19. The survey was conducted between December 2008 and January 2009 utilising a stratified sampling strategy. The survey forms part of the Learner and their Context study, commissioned by Becta, which explores young people’s views and experiences of new technologies outside school and is designed to inform the next phase of the UK’s Harnessing Technology Strategy. This paper will provide an overview of the ways young people are using the Internet for a range of activities (e.g. for homework, information seeking and creating content) and examine the factors that help to explain why young people are using new technologies for these purposes. The results demonstrate that there are a range of individual and contextual factors that help to understand use of the Internet and that formal contexts of education have an important role to play in supporting the “digital natives”.


Full Paper - .pdf


Born into the Digital Age in the south of Africa: the reconfiguration of the “digital citizen”

Laura Czerniewicz, Cheryl Brown
Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town


Our previous research amongst South African university students showed opportunities in a divided and unequal context for digital democracy in the form of a mobile society. While computer divides are manifest amongst South African university students, cell phone access is ubiquitous. In the light of this, we explored students’ digital practices, especially in relation to learning.

This paper adopts a qualitative approach to two cases - a mobile-centric and a computer-centric student respectively - and uses Bourdieu’s notions of objectified and embodied cultural capital as a theoretical frame to explore their differences and similarities, their convergences over time and their disparate histories. We describe the different types of objectified cultural capital available to each student and examine the processes of appropriation of embodied cultural capital respectively. We then explore the relationship between these different types of capital and their shaping of the students’ attitudes to and choices about using ICTs for learning. In particular we note the role that one type of objectified capital – the cell phone - has played in this relationship. The case studies surface complexities which need unravelling, and point to the research questions to be explored when grappling with participation in higher education in a digital age.


Full Paper - .pdf




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